Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Niki de Saint Phalle, Grand Palais

Niki de Saint Phalle, Exhibition View @ Grand Palais
All I really knew of Niki de Saint Phalle’s work before going to the Grand Palais last night was the fountain installation on the south plaza of the Pompidou Centre. Given the apparent frivolity of the fountain, I was surprised by the complexity and boldness that I discovered in her work on exhibition, especially given that it was made prior to the waves of 1970s feminism. Similarly, I was surprised by the fact that the work still holds its conceptual challenges all these years later. In many ways, I discovered a conceptual artist as opposed to the visual artist I was expecting.

niki3 2
Niki de Saint Phalle, Une Nana
At the same time however, and this is her innovation, there was much joy and celebration in the sculptures especially. So much of the feminist art of this first generation is angry (and there’s good reason why) confrontational, loud and vociferous. Niki de Saint Phalle’s work is all of that, but it has another layer which she very consciously crafts: the beautiful. The Tir works are exemplary and extraordinary in this sense. Carefully sculpted pieces, adorned with, among other objects, bags of coloured paint, then covered by plaster surface are fired at from a distance. Saint Phalle aims where she knows the bags of coloured paint to be and what results are works most striking for their coloured tears of paint. The many layers of each piece create a complex narrative of violence, creativity, anger and grief. What is fired at is always as important as Saint Phalle’s performance of shooting. Her targets are the art world, centuries of art, culture, history, the United States government, her father, Kennedy and Khruschev. Just the apparently simple act of this petite, former model holding a gun cocked to fire speaks the empowerment of women to take a stance against the injustices in a world created by men, the same world that lies within the frame of her target.

Nike de Saint Phalle, Tir
I also loved seeing all the men going around, equally delighted by the joy and celebration of woman and women in Saint Phalle’s sculptures, clearly moved by her power as a woman with a voice. As babies are born and brides left faceless and abandoned, women strangled and suffocated, their bodies distorted, their clothes covered in hatchets and meat cleavers, toy guns and limbs of baby dolls, the men visiting the exhibition seemed to be as held by the sculptures as their girlfriends. However, I did wonder if they were equally confronted and outraged as I was by these disturbing sculptures of oversized women defined by marriage and childbirth gone wrong. Even as the oversized nanas, all bosoms and butts, danced and stood in their power, I wondered if all the visitors were as enraged and excited by a grotesquerie that also defines their power as I was? Black women and white, small and large, all of them distorted were refreshing and inspiring as I remember how many artists in this wave of feminism still to come, fought patriarchy with their perfect bodies. It is indeed, the contradictions of Saint Phalle’s women that make them both accessible and enjoyable as well as frightening and critically outspoken.

Sadly, I am not so convinced that the story has changed so much today, and I kept thinking how relevant everything Saint Phalle says is for today’s audience. I wish we had such an artist in our generation encouraging women to take ownership of the public sphere like she did. If there are strains of Saint Phalle’s ideas that are now old, it’s only because today the issues have migrated and a different language is used to articulate them. It’s these commonalities between then and now, I believe, that ensures the sculptures retain their force.

Friday, October 17, 2014

William Eggleston, From Black and White to Color @ Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson

William Eggleston: William Eggleston - Before Colour
William Eggleston,  Untitled (A Cafe in Memphis), Memphis, c. 1968

The epigram to the catalogue’s main essay quotes Eggleston: “I think of them as parts of a novel I’m doing.” The quotation finds Eggleston reflecting on his series of photographs, as though next to each other, the narrative unfolds. As I wandered this small, but rich, selection of Eggleston’s work I was fascinated to see that each image tells a story, each image contains a long, and often mysterious, narrative that begins with the suggestions in the image and continues in the viewer’s imagination. Even before they are put in their series, within each frame, there is a story to be told. And if we recognize early on the debt owed to Eggleston by photographers such as Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff, what the contemporary photographers don’t do is also very clear.

William Eggleston, Untitled (Sumner, Mississippi, Cassidy Bayou in Background) 2011
Eggleston’s photographs tell stories in a way that photography in a post-photographic world does not. A man’s hand picking something off the ground reflected in the fender of a car, a black man and a white man standing together in what looks like a remote location, a car with its door still open behind them, or an old man sitting on bed with a gun at his finger tips. All these images are swelling with a story that’s not yet told.  All these images hold us before them, conjuring up the narratives that have led to the moment Eggleston finds in the image. In other photographs, the mystery is ignited and the story begun through the framing. It’s rare that Eggleston includes the whole object in the image, mostly it’s parts of objects, places, even people, that come into his frame to create textures, shapes, patterns, and thus, to give them a before and an after. Our imaginations are tempted.

William Eggleston, From Los Alamos Folio 1, Memphis
(supermarket boy with carts),
So much of what Eggleston is doing, so much of what makes these works not possible in today’s post-photographic world lies in the materials of his art. Everything in these photographs begins with the richness and materiality of their color. The color is not only vibrant and clear, but the colors themselves are unusual for today’s viewers. The pinks and yellows and cobalt blues are the result of Eggleston’s use of the dye transfer process. A boy pushing shopping trolleys, a woman in the car with her children, even a television bathed in the yellow light of the setting sun are so rich that on seeing the photographs, it’s as though Eggleston discovers the existence of this magical hour of the day. The yellows, pinks, greens are bright, intense, deeply saturated and with not a trace of disintegration over the years. Eggleston discovered the dye transfer process in the early 1970s as a printing process that would allow for the reproduction of intense colors: in its original use for advertising, the brighter the color, the more attractive the product. Eggleston takes uniqueness of dye transfer—its larger color gamut and tonal scale than any other process—and sees the world through its possibilities. Again, it’s as if the world he discovers did not exist before he saw it through the lens of his photographic process.

William Eggleston,  From Dust Bells, Vol 1
, c. 1965-68
 But it’s not all process, because Eggleston’s photographs are anything but advertising. It’s something to do with the fact that the places and spaces, the objects and even the people are rarely photographed in their entirety. Composition is of utmost importance to the poignancy and odd simultaneity of mystery in these photographs. Similarly, he points his camera at the decay that he finds on the streets of the 1970s American South. The overwhelming sense of decay to the places and objects and surfaces that fill these photographs put them at a remove from the advertising images for which the dye transfer process was made.

William Eggleston, From Los Alamos, Folio 4
, c. 1971-74
 The images are everywhere about the American South. When a black man and a white man lean at two different service windows of the same Real Pit Bar B-Q joint, for all the perfection and suggestion of the harsh fluorescent lighting, there’s one thing we see: a black man and a white man leaning at different windows. This is the American South after all. And the gentleness of the light on a wet street in Los Alamos (maybe) cloaks four women on a street corner, making them anything from friends out at night to prostitutes waiting for business.  It’s difficult to say which. There’s not much sadness in Eggleston’s worlds, just age and many sets of stories that we cannot know, but which are begun through the suggestions of what finds its way into the image.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Marcel Duchamp. La Peinture, même au Centre Pompidou

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, no. 2,1912
If it achieves no other of its goals, Marcel Duchamp. La Peinture, Même will put to rest any doubt that the placement of a urinal in a museum display is a gesture filled with brilliance, ingenuity and cultural sophistication. While this exhibition doesn’t really convince me that Duchamp was a great painter, or even a painter to pause over as it sets out to do, it does show Duchamp to have one of the great minds of the twentieth century. Duchamp’s art is not particularly beautiful or seductive, even aesthetically pleasing to look at, but it is intellectually brilliant, and his mind emerges from the exhibition as fascinating. In this respect, Marcel Duchamp. La Peinture, Même shows Duchamp to be an artist on the scale of Leonardo da Vinci, both with their infinite inventions made by minds that move effortlessly between science, engineering, art, architecture, design and painting.

Duchamp was a modern man. He was one of the handful of successful artists of any medium who worked in the first decades of the last century to explore what could not yet be seen by the human eye, what was not yet understood. Duchamp was a man fascinated by the representation of what the human eye could not see: of motion, of desire, of the mystery of the changes brought by technological innovation. Like so much of modernism, Duchamp’s work make visible what is otherwise invisible.
Marcel Duchamp, the Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, 1915-23

Another success of the exhibition, even though it is not its intention, is the demonstration of Duchamp working in a vibrant, provocative cultural milieu, even if he is the artist to be annexed today. In fact much of the exhibition is devoted to the cultural and artistic influences on Duchamp’s work. The most exquisite stereoscopic daguerrotypes were on display, showing this medium’s interest in the exhibition of women’s bodies, and also underlining Duchamp’s fascination with looking or peering inside an apparatus, to discover what is otherwise hidden away. The daguerrotypes were by anonymous photographers and Felix Jacques Moulin from around 1850. Étant Donnée (1946-66) which is considered the penultimate achievement of Duchamp’s artistic career, even if it was his last major work, is so clearly influenced by these early daguerrotypes, not just by Courbet’s Origins of the World. Of course, the presence of Marey’s work in Duchamp’s mechanized Nude Descending a Staircase or the various Portrait of Chess Players is not new. But again, the display here spotlights the connections, and brings to the fore how on the pulse Duchamp was to the developments in the new medium.
Marcel Duchamp, Etant Donnée, 1946-66
In the paintings there is rarely much to look at in his work. At least, there is no temptation to stand before the paintings for any length of time. Duchamp is not a visual artist but rather much more conceptual in motivation. So often artists who are trying to make these grand iconoclastic gestures are so of their historical moment that, today, the iconoclasm has faded. I am thinking here of the beauty of Warhol’s paintings for today’s viewers. However with Duchamp, a work such as Bicycle Wheel (1913) is as radical today as it was all those years ago. Even an object that has become so iconic as the bike wheel on a stool remains still fresh and challenging today. This is impressive, to recognize anti-aesthetic of Duchamp’s work resonates one hundred years after its conception.
Marcel Duchamp. Bicycle Wheel. New York, 1951 (third version, after lost original of 1913)
Marcel Duchamp,  Bicycle Wheel, 1913
 What is really beautiful is the Large Glass and often his other uses of glass – like the Paris air, or the lenses and mirrors in Étant Donnée. There’s something very sensuous and delicate about Duchamp’s use of glass. In the early works on paper, the most intimate and delicate of images are the lithographs – it’s as though those fragile bodies in love are transferred to the delicacy of The Bride Stripped Bare. It is in this masterpiece that we see how brilliant Duchamp was; the modern day Leonardo. He was the scientist working out the mechanics of the glass, building the machines, the artist connected to Cranach whose glazes on his Venuses were the inspiration of the transparency of The Large Glass. And through it all, the cinema, motion and the vision of what cannot otherwise be seen, remains present. In addition, the symbolic meanings of the work are mind boggling: spiritual, erotic, geometrically, physical and psychiological. It’s true that not only his life’s work, but the multiple and multivalent strands of modernism come together in The Large Glass.